Riding the Second Time Around: Learning to gallop again
After the loss of her equine best friend of 20 years, Honeycomb, Jessica Fox didn’t think she’d ever ride again. This is part IV of the story of her climb back into the saddle.
If you missed Part I, II and III of this series, you can read them here, here and here.
Remember the first time you galloped?
I was 11, aboard Misha, a ballerina-graceful dark bay thoroughbred with liquid eyes and a magnificent, floaty canter. We were practicing a low course of jumps, the ring’s frosty darkness punctuated by halogen lights and my trainer Susan’s no-nonsense instructions. After sailing like Pegasus (at least that’s how it felt) over the last jump, Misha chose to take multiple high-speed victory laps around the ring and then try out her barrel racing skills among the standards.
At first, I froze. I’d never before gone so fast or felt so thrillingly, terrifyingly out of control. Then, following Susan’s crisply issued directives as well as reminders to wake up and ride, I tried to stop her. Failing that, I gave in. To the sound of Misha’s feet churning the sand, her breath steaming the air, the pink-cheeked, wide-eyed, starlit awesomeness of it all. Eventually, sides heaving and pleased with herself, Misha stopped. I couldn’t wait to do it again.
From then on, I galloped accidently on purpose whenever I could. After buying Honeycomb, finding the best place to tell her to run as fast as she could became a quest. We’d race beneath power lines, in deserted polo fields, across sun-sweet meadows and through paddocks filled with sleepy, snow-dusted hay rolls, searching for the perfect galloping spot.
As Honey’s feet became less sure and her heart more willing than her legs, we galloped less and less, until we stopped flying all together.
Over five years later, as I tacked up Playday for a trail ride, Gustavo, a horse trainer whose skill borders on mystical, invited me to join him on a hack. I’d heard of these rides. Though I was tempted to say it was a schooling day (we really needed to work on that left-lead canter), my pride wouldn’t let me. I could go fast. And I definitely wasn’t scared, even though I hadn’t cantered much off Jill and Gary’s property and couldn’t remember the last time I had a Black Stallion moment.
As we moved quickly through bamboo-walled paths and silvery streams, a little ball began churning my stomach into a vicious knot. Trotting and cantering were fine (although the trail seemed a bit narrow and precarious), but what if we galloped? Ahead, Gustavo looked back and asked if we were all right. I quickly smiled and nodded. Of course we were OK. I was having fun… no problem!
Then we were in sunlight, the trail cresting onto a wide dirt road that curled itself around the mountain’s edges like the tail of a contented cat. Gustavo slowed to a walk.
“Would you like to gallop?”
“I haven’t done it in a long time.” My voice sounded small. What if I lost control? What if I couldn’t stay on? What if Playday lost her footing and we tumbled down the side of the mountain? The Man from Snowy River I was not.
Beneath his hat, Gustavo eyed me kindly. The horse he was riding, Sweet Pea, one of Jill’s gorgeous Welsh Cobs, snorted and pranced in place.
“You should try. You will be fine.”
I peered up the bright and dusty road, winding to parts unknown, and considered the enamel blue sky. All the excuses I could think of–Playday was green and new to cantering, Jill might not like it, I’d never been on this trail, Playday seemed really feisty today, my legs were sore, we should turn around because I was running late–all led to one thing. I was afraid. Which, for me, meant that somewhere between my days pretending to race Secretariat with Honeycomb and now, I’d lost something. Something I knew I needed to get back or before long it would be as out of reach as the sun. Playday shifted, impatient to move. I took a deep breath. Now or never, sister.
Gathering my courage, I said a little prayer, and asked her to canter. Curled my fingers into her mane, rose in my stirrups, and asked to go faster. She hesitated. How fast? I asked again. Playday surged forward, reins biting my hands, my heart pounding along with her hooves. We swept around a bend, and the road unfurled before us like a golden carpet. My death grip on her reins relaxed, our movements harmonized, and Playday joyfully shifted gears into light speed, her feet barely touching the ground.
Oh! The wind-whipping, reveling-in-the-now marvelousness! That glorious, soaring feeling! By the time we reached the road’s crest and slowed to a walk, I was plotting out promising galloping spots on future hacks and Playday was sighing happily.
Since then, we’ve had lots of gallops, each one an exhilarating reminder of what I love best about riding–the magic that happens when I let go of fear, trust myself, and live in the moment.
About the Author: Jessica Fox is a freelance writer and novelist-in-training who dreams of the day she can sit a trot without flailing about. She currently lives in Los Angeles, CA where she writes as much as possible to feed her increasingly voracious horse-habit and almost rides Dressage. www.foxywrites.com
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